If you’ve spent more than a day in Venice, you’ve probably walked down the busy Strada Nova in the Cannaregio district, starting at Campo SS Apostoli and heading towards the train station. You may have glanced at purses or the bakery, or used the bancomat, and never noticed that these shops hide the facade of the church of Santa Sofia. Really, you need to stand back a bit, in the tiny Campo Santa Sofia, to see the church as it lurks behind the other buildings.
On this day, August 6, nearly 400 years ago in 1619, Barbara Strozzi was baptized in this church. No one knew that she would go on to become the most published composer of her era–male or female.
Barbara was born to Isabella Griega, the servant to Giulio Strozzi, a poet and writer of librettos. It wasn’t until much later that Giulio publicly recognized Barbara as his daughter, giving her the title “figliuola elettiva,” a euphemism for “legitimate” but that was pragmatically understood to mean he adopted her. However, from the day she was born, Giulio bestowed gifts on her–a roof over her head, the stability of family life, and an education. He provided her with tutors in singing and playing the violin, including Venice’s most illustrious Francesco Cavalli, then the director of music at the Basilica di San Marco and a composer himself.
The family lived here, at the Palazzo Pesaro-Papafava, facing the Misericordia canal.
They later lived on the Calle del Remer, further east in Cannaregio. Even after her father’s death, Barbara continued to live here, and the financial documents that survive show that she was a savvy investor.
Giulio also provided a literary salon for Barbara to preside over; these were gatherings of writers, artists, musicians, and other great thinkers. Barbara sang and performed, dazzling the men in attendance (for in her day, only men attended these gatherings, except for the few women performers or courtesans who were there as entertainment). She premiered in the Accademia degli Incogniti (The Unknowns), founded by Giovanni Francesco Loredan, though later her father created the Accademia degli Unisoni—The Like-Minded, which focused more on musical delights. These were powerful venues for Barbara, who honed her soprano voice and soon began composing pieces she could perform for these audiences.
Barbara wrote eight collections of works, seeking patronage from wealthy nobles (though apparently receiving little remuneration). Her compositions often showcase the singing, though sometimes the lyrics highlight other concerns, such as love. “These harmonic notes,” she said of Opus 7, “are the language of the soul and instruments of the heart.” (Many of her pieces have been translated and are available at Candace Magner’s website: http://barbarastrozzi.blogspot.com).
This only remaining portrait of Barbara shows her with her instrument in hand, musical score by her side. She is depicted as a courtesan, with a breast exposed as was a customary indication. However, no other records confirm that she was part of this profession. In fact, she had a long-running relationship with the married nobleman Giovanni Paolo Vidman (or Widmann), which resulted in four children that his family eventually recognized. Barbara’s morals were maligned by her biographers, and we may never know the full story, but within the societal constraints of the day, she seemed to have created a monogamous relationship that was within her social stratum.
If you want more details on her story, check out my chapter in A Beautiful Woman in Venice (http://kathleenanngonzalez.wix.com/beautifulwoman). But if you want to hear her music to honor this talented and prolific composer, please turn to this small sample.